Have you been pondering whether to go to grad school following your masters? Not sure whether research is your cup of tea? Hesitant if a PhD is necessary for your career plans ahead? Then the following thoughts are for you.
Recently, I have been asked on a couple of occasions why I decided to go to grad school and I conversed with people wondering what the right carrier choice would be following their masters degree. I clearly remember how difficult I found this question too. While working on my masters project, everyone was already talking about PhD applications. Meanwhile, lecturers strongly pushed us towards the idea that the PhD is the one and only right step forward.
I’m dedicating this post to all those people who are hesitating whether it’s worth committing at least 3 years to a PhD program, following all those years already spent in school. I don’t think earning a PhD is always the right choice. I don’t think either it’s necessary to apply for a PhD right after a graduate program and I believe that applying for one can be because of very different motivations and reasoning. I’m sure that various aspects of the decision and of the PhD itself vary by field. Still, I hope the following considerations may be useful for some readers.
I’ll start by listing a couple of things people on the other side of the academic career ladder (those already having a PhD) rarely tell you.
You CAN do applied work
I know a lot of people (including me) fearing that a PhD is all about lab-based, theoretical work. Now this may very well be the case in certain fields of research, but I can assure anybody interested in social sciences that the work to be done depends primarily on you: on the question you propose and the methodology you want to apply.
You DO have time for other projects
You have the control: you set your own timing and schedule, your research questions and any next steps. You have the responsibility over assigning time for separate projects and for your personal life. Of course this may somewhat depend on your supervisor too, I have friends whose timing is overseen by the supervisors, but this is not always the case. Again, you are in charge of changing the situation if you are unhappy about it.
NOBODY else is responsible
I regularly see that even graduate students happen to blame others for their mistakes or lack of work. I made this mistake myself as well, let me use this story to illustrate what I mean. When I moved to the UK, handed in my first written assignment and got back the results, I was devastated. Not only was it a low grade, but the feedback I received was suggesting that I needed to work much harder if I wanted to perform better. I was first blaming the markers and the system in general: how many things and in what why are unfair. Then I realised the only one who could change the situation was me. It was entirely my decision to start a degree, it was my decision to do it in the UK, it was up to me to start improving my written English and it was up to me as well to learn more about the expectations of the English academic system. Of course it is never easy to admit that the work has to be done solely by you. But during your PhD nobody else would.
Okay, now a couple of things that can give a good reason to finally apply and start doing that PhD. Again, this list is mostly based on my experience (My work is mainly global health and international development-focused, thus my thoughts should be taken with care).
Why would you want to do a PhD?
- Because you are interested in something specific: It is this simple. You want to take advantage of the opportunity that you can spend 3 years looking at a question you are particularly interested in. You should be able to explain clearly why it is that very question that you are interested in. The PhD is a piece of paper at the end of the day that you earn by thinking and working on a question chosen by you. I believe this is the most important aspect and yet it proved to be the most difficult one for me. I bet this part causes problems for people like me: I’m interested in a large variety of things. In school I did generally well in most subjects, not excelling at them necessarily, but I coped well and this didn’t help me choose a specialty.
- Because you also have a general interest in research: You like to look at things through the lens of a researcher, you enjoy understanding complex processes in a controlled framework. You can not do a PhD without enjoying the full research process.
- Because others have a PhD too: why deny, the fact that some other people you care about have a PhD definitely matters or at least mattered to me. If people in your field or in your family have a PhD, it may impact your decision-making. Social pressure counts a lot.
Finally, as I wasn’t sure if my considerations are in any way similar to others’, I asked my friends on Facebook why they decided to pursue a PhD. Here are a couple of answers, they speak for themselves:
“If you do research and work in certain fields of science, after a while it is basically expected and recommended to have PhD in order to get higher positions. So, in my case I considered it as step towards widening my future perspectives. In addition, for sure you learn a lot about publishing, structured thinking, planning experiments, etc during the preparatory years.”
“It isn’t the PhD itself that matters to me, but more the path leading to earn that degree. The studies you design, the validation of your research experiences, the clarification of your results and the publication of them…The PhD is about documenting a part of your life long learning. (The Hungarian original: Nem a PhD a lényeg számomra, hanem az oda vezető út. A kutatások, tapasztalatok hitelesítése, összerendezése(!), publikálása… A PhD a Life Long Learning egy részének a dokumentálása.)”
“Pain is temporary, Dr. is permanent.”
“Because it’s a profound experience: one is face to face every day with what they love most. Plus, even the driest of PhDs is likely to be more stimulating than the average office role.”
“It seemed like a natural next step because I did well in my undergrad and masters. I liked to hang out with smart people and I also thought the research is about exploring the unknown and using your brain and being smart. (the reality didn’t meet my expectations…)”